Opinions

Why did Park Police officers kill Bijan Ghaisar?

Nearly two years have passed since officers shot nine times at an unarmed man after a minor accident. There remains no explanation for why they did it.

(Fairfax County Police Department)

A man is rear-ended in a fender bender on the George Washington Parkway in Northern Virginia, across the Potomac from Washington. He drives off. Two U.S. Park Police officers chase him and, minutes later, repeatedly shoot him in the head. The man, Bijan Ghaisar, a 25-year-old accountant, dies after 10 days in a coma.

Nearly two years later, the FBI has released virtually no information about its investigation into the police shooting. But police videos of the shooting raise questions that must be answered: What threat was so grave that the officers seemingly ignored protocol, and common sense, to shoot an unarmed man multiple times at point-blank range? And why are the FBI and federal prosecutors taking so long?

M.D.

D.C.

Potomac

G.W. MEMorial PKWy.

7:27 p.m.

Rear-end

collision

7:38 p.m.

Police video

begins

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

N

VIRGINIA

3 MILES

M.D.

D.C.

Potomac River

G.W. MEMorial PKWy.

7:27 p.m.

Rear-end

collision

7:38 p.m.

Police video

begins

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

ALEXANDRIA

N

FAIRFAX CO.

VIRGINIA

3 MILES

M.D.

D.C.

Potomac River

Reagan Nat’l

Airport

G.W. MEMorial PKWy.

7:27 p.m.

Rear-end

collision

7:38 p.m.

Police video

begins

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

ALEXANDRIA

N

FAIRFAX CO.

VIRGINIA

3 MILES

M.D.

D.C.

Potomac River

Reagan Nat’l

Airport

G.W. MEMorial PKWy.

7:27 p.m.

Rear-end

collision

7:38 p.m.

Police video

begins

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

ALEXANDRIA

N

VIRGINIA

FAIRFAX CO.

3 MILES

The incident, on Nov. 17, 2017, begins when Ghaisar’s Jeep Grand Cherokee suddenly stops on the southbound parkway and is hit from behind by an Uber driver in a Toyota Corolla. It’s a minor incident; no one is hurt, and property damage is slight.

Most of what is known about that evening comes from a video released by the Fairfax County Police Department. It was recorded by a police cruiser that was trailing Ghaisar’s Jeep and the Park Police SUV chasing him.

7:38 p.m.

The recording released to the public starts at 7:38 p.m., approximately nine minutes after Ghaisar’s vehicle is rear-ended. A few seconds into the video, Ghaisar stops in the right lane. The Park Police vehicle pulls just in front of him.

7:38 p.m.

First interception

attempt on video

Pursuit route

Video begins

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Park Police

vehicle

Weapon

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

Officer bangs on the Jeep

Ghaisar drives away

7:38 p.m.

First interception

attempt on video

Pursuit route

Video begins

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Park Police

vehicle

Weapon

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

Officer bangs on the Jeep

Ghaisar drives away

7:38 p.m.

First interception

attempt on video

Pursuit route

Video begins

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Park Police

vehicle

Weapon

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

Officer bangs on the Jeep

Ghaisar drives away

7:38 p.m.

First interception

attempt on video

Pursuit route

Video begins

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Park Police

vehicle

Weapon

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer bangs on the Jeep

Officer

Ghaisar drives away

7:38 p.m.

First interception

attempt on video

Pursuit route

Video begins

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Park Police

vehicle

Weapon

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer bangs on the Jeep

Officer

Ghaisar drives away

In most traffic stops, the police car would stop behind the vehicle in question. In this case, the officers try to block Ghaisar’s Jeep, then approach his vehicle with guns drawn. Conceivably, that might be authorized if officers believe a suspect has committed a felony in leaving the scene of an accident. But leaving the scene of an accident becomes a felony in Virginia only if there is an injury or more than $1,000 in damage. Neither seems to apply in this case, though it is unclear whether the officers knew that.

A few seconds after he is stopped, Ghaisar slowly edges to the right and drives off, leaving the two officers behind. One of them bangs his weapon on the window of Ghaisar’s Jeep as it pulls away.

(Fairfax County Police Department)

“That traffic stop was bad police procedure,” said Cedric L. Alexander, a psychologist who was a police chief in Rochester, N.Y, and DeKalb County, Ga. “It didn’t give the officers adequate cover. When he bangs on the window, there’s nothing there procedurally that I am familiar with. He could have accidentally fired the weapon, it could have hurt himself or someone.”

Blocking a vehicle is not authorized in many police departments because it creates an unsafe situation — the evading driver could run into the police car or the officers. The most common procedure is to pull behind a suspect and approach the vehicle cautiously.

According to Geoffrey P. Alpert, a criminology professor at the University of South Carolina, pulling in front of a suspect’s car could be justifiable if the police thought the suspect was an imminent threat who needed to be stopped. But Mr. Alpert points out contradictions in the Park Police officers’ actions: They try to block Ghaisar’s vehicle but then make themselves vulnerable by walking toward him.

In one of the few dispatch audio recordings made public, an officer says Ghaisar is fleeing from a hit-and-run scene. It remains unknown what else the officers may (or may not) know.

Ghaisar continues along the parkway. He doesn’t weave; his driving is not erratic. He sticks to his lane and, using his turn indicator, exits the parkway in the Fort Hunt neighborhood of Fairfax County, slows down and is halted by Park Police again.

7:40 p.m.

The officers pull in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep, exit their vehicle and move toward him with their weapons drawn. It is not uncommon for police officers to approach a suspect with weapons drawn if they believe there is a threat. From the video, however, Ghaisar does not appear to pose any threat. He slowly maneuvers his Jeep to the right, away from the approaching officers, and drives off again.

7:40 p.m.

Second

stop on

video

G.W. Memorial PKWY.

Ghaisar

Mt. Vernon Trail

Park

Police

WEST BLVD. Dr.

Pursuit route

START

Video begins

ALEXANDRIA

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Officer

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Knee

bump

Ghaisar drives away

7:40 p.m.

Second

stop on

video

G.W. Memorial PKWY.

Ghaisar

Mt. Vernon Trail

Park

Police

WEST BLVD. Dr.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

Video begins

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Officer

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Knee

bump

Ghaisar drives away

G.W. Memorial PKWY.

7:40 p.m.

Second

stop on

video

Ghaisar

Park

Police

Mt. Vernon Trail

WEST BLVD. Dr.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

Video begins

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Officer

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Knee

bump

Ghaisar drives away

7:40 p.m.

Second

stop on

video

G.W. Memorial PKWY.

Ghaisar

Park

Police

Mt. Vernon Trail

WEST BLVD. Dr.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

Video begins

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Officer

G.W. Memorial PKWY.

7:40 p.m.

Second

stop on

video

Ghaisar

Park

Police

Mt. Vernon Trail

WEST BLVD. Dr.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

Video begins

END

FAIRFAX CO.

Officer

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Knee

bump

Ghaisar drives away

As the vehicle pulls away, one of the officers appears to thrust his knee into the side of Ghaisar’s vehicle. To Mr. Alexander, the former police chief, the officer’s action reflects inadequate training.

“It tells me that the officer is frustrated in a situation [where it] appears he has lost control — the officer himself has lost composure,” said Mr. Alexander. "What’s a knee strike to the car going to do?”

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar comes to a halt for a third time on the video at a stop sign at the intersection of Fort Hunt Road and Alexandria Avenue in Fairfax County.

The Park Police vehicle pulls in front of him again, and again the officers emerge with guns drawn, approaching Ghaisar’s Jeep from the driver’s side. What happens next on the video raises more questions. Ghaisar allows his Jeep to creep slowly forward, turning the vehicle away from an officer coming toward him. Again, there is no apparent threat to the police.

Nonetheless, an officer opens fire, five times, and the Jeep stops.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

Video begins

END

FAIRFAX CO.

7:40 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

Alexandria Ave.

Ghaisar

Park

Police

FORT HUNT RD.

1

Park police

vehicle

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

An officer takes position in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep.

2

Officer

Ghaisar’s Jeep moves slowly, and the officer

fires five times.

3

Officer

The vehicle moves slowly, and the officer fires

two more times.

4

Ghaisar’s S.U.V.

The Jeep moves again and tilts into a ditch. One

of the Park Police officers fires two more times.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

Video begins

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

FAIRFAX CO.

Alexandria Ave.

Ghaisar

Park

Police

FORT HUNT RD.

1

Park police

vehicle

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

An officer takes position in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep.

2

Officer

Ghaisar’s Jeep moves slowly, and the officer fires five times.

3

Officer

The vehicle moves slowly, and the officer fires

two more times.

4

Ghaisar’s S.U.V.

The Jeep moves again and tilts into a ditch. One of the

Park Police officers fires two more times.

Pursuit route

START

Video begins

ALEXANDRIA

END

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

FAIRFAX CO.

Alexandria Ave.

Ghaisar

Park

Police

FORT HUNT RD.

1

2

Officer

Park police

vehicle

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

An officer takes position in front of

Ghaisar’s Jeep.

Ghaisar’s Jeep moves slowly, and the

officer fires five times.

3

4

Officer

Ghaisar’s S.U.V.

The vehicle moves slowly, and the officer

fires two more times.

The Jeep moves again and tilts into a ditch.

One of the Park Police officers fires

two more times.

Pursuit route

START

END

Video begins

ALEXANDRIA

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

FAIRFAX CO.

Alexandria Ave.

Ghaisar

Park

Police

FORT HUNT RD.

1

2

Officer

Park police

vehicle

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

An officer takes position in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep.

Ghaisar’s Jeep moves slowly, and the officer fires

five times.

3

4

Officer

Ghaisar’s S.U.V.

The vehicle moves slowly, and the officer fires

two more times.

The Jeep moves again and tilts into a ditch. One

of the Park Police officers fires two more times.

Pursuit route

START

ALEXANDRIA

END

Video begins

7:41 p.m.

Ghaisar

is shot

FAIRFAX CO.

Alexandria Ave.

Ghaisar

Park

Police

FORT HUNT RD.

1

2

Park police

vehicle

Ghaisar’s Jeep

Officer

Officer

An officer takes position in front of Ghaisar’s Jeep.

Ghaisar’s Jeep moves slowly, and the officer fires five times.

3

4

Officer

Ghaisar’s S.U.V.

The vehicle moves slowly, and the officer fires two more times.

The Jeep moves again and tilts into a ditch. One of the Park Police

officers fires two more times.

A few seconds later, the Jeep crawls forward another few feet, and two more shots are heard. The Jeep stops for about 11 seconds, then again begins to roll. And again the police fire, another two shots — that’s nine in all — before the Jeep tilts into a ditch.

Gunshot wounds

Four shots struck Ghaisar’s head, and one hit his right wrist.

Wounds likely from

entry and exit point of

the same gunshot

Multiple

gunshots

Likely from

the same

gunshot

Gunshot wounds

Four shots struck Ghaisar’s head, and one hit his right wrist.

Wounds likely from entry

and exit point of the same

gunshot

Multiple

gunshots

Likely from

the same

gunshot

Gunshot

wounds

Four shots struck Ghaisar’s head, and one hit his right wrist.

Wounds likely from entry

and exit point of the

same gunshot

Multiple

gunshots

Likely from

the same

gunshot

Gunshot

wounds

Four shots struck Ghaisar’s head, and one hit his right wrist.

Wounds likely from entry

and exit point of the

same gunshot

Multiple

gunshots

Likely from

the same

gunshot

In each instance, Ghaisar, after stopping, has maneuvered his Jeep away from the officers who are approaching him on the driver’s side. The police may have been annoyed. They may have been angry, understandably. At no time, however, do they appear in danger. Ghaisar’s driving is evasive; it is not menacing. Police are tasked with keeping their cool under far more trying circumstances. In this case, they do not.

The video below shows the moment the officers open fire. Warning: The scene is disturbing.

“Unless there was a threat to the officer’s life, I don’t see how it’s justified to use deadly force,” said Mr. Alpert of the University of South Carolina. “He’s escaping, but that doesn’t justify the use of deadly force."

What impelled the actions of the officers, Alejandro Amaya and Lucas Vinyard? Nearly two years have passed, and that question remains unanswered — though they invoked “self-defense,” implausibly and without explanation, in responding to a lawsuit this year from Ghaisar’s parents.

“Can you really call two years later reasonable?” Mr. Alexander asked about the FBI investigation. “It creates doubts in the minds of people who are already living in an environment when they are questioning the credibility of the police. The longer it sits out there in the dark space, it creates doubt, resentment and an image that police are trying to cover for themselves.”

What now?

Kelly and James Ghaisar, parents of Bijan Ghaisar, staged a protest this month after U.S. Park Police Chief Robert MacLean was promoted to lead the Interior Department's Office of Law Enforcement and Security. (Kate Woodsome and Joshua Carroll/The Washington Post)

What explains the fate of Ghaisar, a college graduate, young accountant and proud Patriots fan known for his ebullient personality? Why did police chase him after an apparently routine traffic incident? Why did they approach his Jeep with guns drawn when he pulled over? Why did Ghaisar, who was unarmed, repeatedly pull away after he was stopped? What prompted police to open fire, and shoot him again and again?

And why, 22 months after the incident, has no explanation been offered to the public, to members of Congress who have made repeated inquiries, or to the Ghaisar family? Protests by his parents, relatives and friends have prompted no official response.

“This is supposed to be democracy. Rules.
Their own rules, which they didn’t follow.”
James Ghaisar, father of Bijan Ghaisar.

There has been no response from the Park Police, which shifted the investigation to the FBI almost immediately — or even a formal review of policy and procedures. No word from the FBI, which has rebuffed not only journalists but also senators and a congressman who demanded information on the investigation. And no transparency from the office of U.S. Attorney Jessie K. Liu, the chief federal prosecutor in the District of Columbia, who would make the call on whether to seek an indictment, depending on the investigation’s results.

From every official source, there is almost nothing but silence. The officers remain on paid administrative duty. Certainly there is no hint of accountability, no sense that the public is entitled to know what took place. A man with no prior criminal record is shot by police, and the result is a snail’s-pace inquiry so opaque that it might be mistaken for no investigation at all, or a phony one undertaken by a tinpot regime.

That is an affront to the public, which may reasonably wonder if official impunity and coverup are the default instinct by law enforcement officers following a police shooting. And for Ghaisar’s family, it is an unimaginable ongoing torment.

Below is the entire video recorded by the Fairfax County Police Department cruiser and used in this editorial. It contains graphic content.

Read more from the editorial board

The Park Police chief is being promoted — after stonewalling on Bijan Ghaisar

The fog surrounding the Bijan Ghaisar case grows thicker

The alarming way hate crimes are handled in D.C.

It’s been over 600 days since U.S. Park Police killed an unarmed man. We still have no answers.

Credits: Videos and additional reporting by Kate Woodsome and Joshua Carroll. Additional design and development by Chris Rukan. Chase video by Fairfax County Police Department.
Credits: Editorial Board

We noticed you’re blocking ads!

Keep supporting great journalism by turning off your ad blocker. Or purchase a subscription for unlimited access to real news you can count on.
Unblock ads
Questions about why you are seeing this? Contact us